In 2015, 12-year-old Arianna Nassiri sat in the lobby of City Hall in her hometown of San Francisco, waiting for an internship interview.
A legislative aide approached and asked, “Can I help you with something? Are you waiting for your parents?” The internship was for college-age students. The Board of Supervisors weren’t expecting to see an eighth grader waiting in their office. Nassiri remembers senior staffers breaking out into laughter. “Oh, this was the person we were waiting for,’” she recalls them saying.
Despite her young age, Nassiri got the internship, which gave her opportunity to be mentored by then-District 5 Supervisor London Breed, who went on to become the Mayor of San Francisco in 2018.
Arianna first heard about the Vote16 movement while she was working in Breed’s office. Vote16USA is a national campaign that’s working across the country to extend voting rights to sixteen and seventeen year olds at the local and state level.
She didn’t always believe that lowering the voting age to 16 was the right thing to do “As someone who was, at the time, 13, I knew 16-year-olds, I knew 17-year-olds, and I just thought, ‘oh, they’re not mature enough. They don’t care enough. They have no experience. I don’t want my friends voting—I’d be willing to sacrifice my own right to vote to prevent those people from voting.’”
The Vote16 San Francisco ballot measure wound up losing by a 2.8% margin in the 2016 election cycle. Still, that was an impressive margin for a youth-led campaign, and it meant that Vote16 was going somewhere. Arianna first got involved with Vote16 SF after that first loss. She was appointed as the Head of Civic Engagement with the San Francisco Youth Commission, which meant that Vote16 was “grandfathered into her agenda” of things to address.
Arianna began to shift her thinking on the importance of lowering the voting age. She came to see that young people in San Francisco, in surprisingly high numbers, are taxpayers, are caretakers for members of their family, are enrolled in the public school system. They also drive, so they deal with the municipal transportation agency. “These are all systems that are directly regulated by local elections,” said Arianna. “And yet young people who are the primary interactors with these systems are not having any say on an election-level, on a legislative level, [on] how these systems are being regulated.”
Arianna explained that her role coupled with the high school government course she was taking at the time caused her to “realize that we were, at the time, experiencing a kind of crisis of democracy in San Francisco. Specifically in that, you have a population of diverse people with a large spectrum of ages, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, but the electorate skewed over a decade older, it’s skewed whiter, it’s skewed straighter and more male than the average citizen. So legislation being passed that only reflects those few who are voting.”
As commissioner, Arianna said that it was her job to “represent young people, especially those who are disenfranchised—and what better way to represent them than by enfranchising them?”
In 2020, the Vote16 San Francisco campaign she helped lead came less than two percent away from passing. “It was the closest margin of any local proposition,” she said. “We don’t consider that a loss because it’s progress in the right direction.”
A sophomore at Georgetown University, Arianna has already given a speech with Nancy Pelosi, served as the San Francisco Youth Commissioner, worked as a Campaign Fellow for Biden for President, and, of course, become an advisor for the Vote16USA campaign.
“After the March for Our Lives movement, the #MeToo movement, you saw a lot of this new spotlight on the efficacy but also the legitimacy of civic work that young people across the country were doing,” said Arianna. All of this helped support San Francisco’s Vote16 campaign in 2020. “We came back with this new rebranded focus on not just lowering the voting age but restoring democracy on a local level.”
Though the campaign didn’t quite make it in 2020, Arianna remains hopeful about the progress they’ve made and youth involvement in government overall. “If you have a passion for a cause, there will be a place for you to exercise your civic right as a young person to mobilize, to work, to ignite justice on a local or national level. It’s just that opportunity is not going to come to you. You have to find it yourself.”